22 Apr

Fear Of Maths Mistakes

Another of my maths students seems to be quite anxious about getting the right answer. She often answers questions with what she thinks I want to hear, rather than out of her own understanding. I get the impression that she fears getting the answer wrong. I have been encouraging her risk taking and reassuring her that it’s okay to be wrong. She has improved since tutoring first started and as our relationship builds, but it still affects her problem solving and thought processes. Can you offer some tips on helping students feel that it’s okay to be wrong. Ways to encourage them that they don’t have to get the answer right all the time.

This is a really common problem for maths students. Answers tend to be either right or wrong and nobody likes to be absolutely wrong. These sorts of confidence issues are usually tied to a student’s beliefs about themselves and what it means to be right/wrong in maths. While you should talk about this regularly to instil confidence and improve her beliefs, this is a long term process. In the shorter term some concepts to consider:

  • You need to create a tutoring environment where she feels “safe” to be wrong.
  • Regularly discuss the fact that it is impossible to learn maths without being wrong many many times first. Maths thinking is a skill, not knowledge and only through the risky practice of thinking and trying can it be learned (not the practice of trying questions safely and mindlessly).
  • One effective technique is to make mistakes yourself or at least play up the extent to which you are challenged by her questions. Sometimes act unsure of yourself to demonstrate that you are not perfect in maths either and are willing to make mistakes – even though you did really well in school, show that you still can struggle.
  • When doing this point out to her that “I’m not 100% sure, let me try this” … “actually I think this is how you do it” … “yep figured it out”… When a student sees the process by which mistakes are made confidently it serves to make the “mistake making process” more relatable – especially if they have a good and trusting relationship with you.
  • When she does make a mistake praise her for it, if you could see that it took effort for her to try. Give her another similar question and when she succeeds or gets further than last time, point out how her previous risk taking made it possible for her to improve.
  • The goal in trying a question isn’t necessarily to get it right, in tutorials it’s just for practice. The goal is to learn, not to get it right. Getting it right is just a bonus. When failing at a question students experience the pain immediately but don’t reap the benefits of their failure until later. This creates an experience skewed toward the present rather than the future which is a version of the student who is successful in math. Shift her focus to the learnings and improvements rather than wrongs and rights. Lace your tutorials with this kind of talk and eventually it will rub off, hopefully.

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